The Mikado History
The Mikado or The Town of Titipu is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, their ninth of fourteen operatic collaborations. It opened on March 14, 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera. The Mikado remains the most frequently performed Savoy Opera, and it is especially popular with amateur and school productions. The work has been translated into numerous languages and is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history.
Setting the opera in Japan, an exotic locale far away from Britain, allowed Gilbert to satirise British politics and institutions more freely by disguising them as Japanese. Gilbert used foreign or fictional locales in several operas, including The Mikado, Princess Ida, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke, to soften the impact of his pointed satire of British institutions.
The Mikado Synopsis
Courtyard of Ko-Ko’s Official Residence
Gentlemen of the Japanese town of Titipu are gathered (“If you want to know who we are”). A wandering musician, Nanki-Poo, enters and introduces himself (“A wand’ring minstrel I”). He inquires about his beloved, the maiden Yum-Yum, a ward of Ko-Ko (formerly a cheap tailor). One of the gentlemen, Pish-Tush, explains that when the Mikado decreed that flirting was a capital crime, the Titipu authorities frustrated the decree by appointing Ko-Ko, a prisoner condemned to death for flirting, to the post of Lord High Executioner (“Our great Mikado, virtuous man”). Ko-Ko was “next” to be decapitated, and the Titipu authorities reasoned that he could “not cut off another’s head until he cut his own off”, and since Ko-Ko was not likely to try to execute himself, no executions could take place. However, all officials but the haughty Pooh-Bah proved too proud to serve under an ex-tailor, and Pooh-Bah now holds all their posts — and collects all their salaries. Pooh-Bah informs Nanki-Poo that Yum-Yum is scheduled to marry Ko-Ko on that very day (“Young man, despair”).
Ko-Ko enters (“Behold the Lord High Executioner”), and asserts himself by reading off a list of people “who would not be missed” if they were executed (“As some day it may happen”). Soon, Yum-Yum appears with two of her friends (sometimes referred to as her “sisters”), Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing (“Comes a train of little ladies”, “Three little maids from school”). Ko-Ko encourages a respectful greeting between Pooh-Bah and the young girls, but Pooh-Bah will have none of it (“So please you, sir”). Nanki-Poo arrives on the scene and informs Ko-Ko of his love for Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko sends him away, but Nanki-Poo manages to meet with his beloved and reveals his secret to Yum-Yum — he is the son and heir of the Mikado, but he’s travelling in disguise to avoid the amorous advances of Katisha, an elderly lady of his father’s court. They lament over what the law forbids them to do (“Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted”).
Ko-Ko receives news that the Mikado has decreed that unless an execution is carried out within a month, the town will be reduced to the rank of a village — which would bring “irretrievable ruin”. Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush point to Ko-Ko himself as the obvious choice for beheading, since he was already under sentence of death (“I am so proud”), but Ko-Ko protests that, firstly, it would be “extremely difficult, not to say dangerous”, for him to attempt to execute himself, and secondly, it would be suicide, which is a “capital offence”. Fortuitously, Ko-Ko discovers that Nanki-Poo, in despair over losing Yum-Yum, is preparing to commit suicide. After ascertaining that nothing would change Nanki-Poo’s mind, Ko-Ko makes a bargain with him: Nanki-Poo may marry Yum-Yum for one month if, at the end of that time, he allows himself to be executed. Ko-Ko would then marry the young widow.
Everyone arrives to celebrate Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum’s union (“With aspect stern and gloomy stride”), but the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Katisha, who has come to claim Nanki-Poo as her husband. However, the townspeople are much more sympathetic to the young couple, and her attempts to reveal Nanki-Poo’s secret are drowned out by the shouting of the crowd. Outwitted but not defeated, Katisha makes it clear that she intends to return.
Yum-Yum is being prepared by her friends for her wedding (“Braid the raven hair”), after which she is left to muse on her own beauty (“The sun whose rays”). She is joined by Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo, who remind her of the limited nature of her impending union. Joined by Nanki-Poo and Pish-Tush, they try to keep their spirits up (“Brightly dawns our wedding-day”), but soon Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah enter to inform them of a twist in the law that states that when a married man is beheaded for flirting (the only crime so punished), his wife must be buried alive (“Here’s a how-de-do”). Yum-Yum is unwilling to marry under these circumstances, and so Nanki-Poo challenges Ko-Ko to behead him on the spot. It turns out, however, that Ko-Ko has never executed anyone, not even a Blue bottle, and cannot execute Nanki-Poo, because the ex-tailor is too soft-hearted. Ko-Ko instead sends Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum away to be wed (by Pooh-Bah, as Archbishop of Titipu), promising to present to the Mikado a false affidavit in evidence of the fictitious execution.
The Mikado and Katisha arrive in Titipu with little notice, but accompanied by a large procession (“A more humane Mikado”). Ko-Ko assumes that he has come to see whether an execution has been carried out. Aided by Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah, he gives a graphic description of the supposed execution (“The criminal cried”) and hands the Mikado the certificate of death — signed and sworn to by Pooh-Bah as coroner and noting, slyly, that most of the town’s important officers (that is, Pooh-Bah) were present at the “ceremony”. However, the Mikado has come about an entirely different matter — he is searching for his son. When they hear that the Mikado’s son “goes by the name of Nanki-Poo”, the three panic, and Ko-Ko says that Nanki-Poo “has gone abroad”. Meanwhile, Katisha is reading the death certificate and notes with horror that the person “executed” was Nanki-Poo. The Mikado, though expressing understanding and sympathy (“See How the Fates”), discusses with Katisha the statutory punishment “for compassing the death of the heir apparent” to the Imperial throne — something lingering, “with boiling oil… or melted lead”. With the three conspirators facing painful execution, Ko-Ko pleads with Nanki-Poo to return. Nanki-Poo fears that Katisha will order his execution if she finds he is alive, but notes that if Ko-Ko could persuade Katisha to marry him, then Nanki-Poo could safely “come to life again” as Katisha would have no claim on him (“The flowers that bloom in the spring”). Though Katisha is “something appalling”, Ko-Ko has no choice: it is marriage to Katisha, or a painful death for all three.
Ko-Ko discovers Katisha mourning her loss (“Alone, and yet alive”) and throws himself on her mercy. He begs for her hand in marriage, saying that he has long harboured a passion for her. Katisha initially rebuffs him, but is soon moved by his pleadings (“Tit-willow”). She agrees (“There is beauty in the bellow of the blast”) and, once the ceremony is performed (by Pooh-Bah, the Registrar), begs mercy for him and his “accomplices” from the Mikado. Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum then re-appear, sparking Katisha’s fury. The Mikado is astonished that Nanki-Poo is alive, when the account of his execution had been given with such “affecting particulars”. Ko-Ko explains that when a royal command for an execution is given, the victim is, legally speaking, as good as dead, “and if he is dead, why not say so?” The Mikado deems that “Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory”, and so Titipu celebrates (“For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum”).